It isn’t meant to be a head-scratcher. “What does your band sound like?” It’s a softball, a knowing seed the reporter plants to bait his subject into a quote. The question falls to Laird Dixon, guitarist and mastermind of the Chapel Hill-based band Shark Quest. He takes a long drag off his cigarette before he answers. “I don’t know,” he sighs. “I haven’t been able to describe it yet. And I’ve been asked–obviously.”

The only thing anyone knows for sure is that Shark Quest is an instrumental band. After that, things get murky. The songs achieve an effortless balance of arrangement and spontaneity. They’re built like pop songs but they reveal melodic complexities that seem to recall classical music. You’ll swear you hear hints of local indie bands Polvo and Spatula, but then you dig deeper and find touches of folk, surf and nearly every ethnic music from Budapest to Beijing.

Is this rock? Jazz? Bluegrass? Chamber-pop? Post-prog? Jam-band kicks for punk-rock hearts? Folk music for armchair travelers? The Rawhide theme at a Greek wedding? Sometimes it’s wise to leave these things to the band.

“I would just list the instruments,” says drummer Groves Willer. “The fact that there’s cello and banjo and mandolin changes things a lot. Shark Quest is kind of like a rock band but Laird’s songs are just so weird. He and Kevin play this weird style of guitar that they developed when they were like 4 years old.”

Kevin is Kevin Dixon, Laird’s big brother and former bandmate in the (equally indescribable) legendary Zen Frisbee. Long ago, Laird devised a special musical shorthand with his brother. He did it out of necessity. He did it to communicate.

And so, while other guitarists sweat and toil with their E, G and C chord progressions, Laird Dixon is busy perfecting the “Elongated L,” the “Diagonal Inverted” and the “Elongated Triangle With a Spur at the End.”

“I’m either too stupid or I don’t have the patience to learn the names of chords,” Laird says with genuine embarrassment. “It was only a couple of years ago when I bought a tuner that I actually learned the names of the strings on a guitar.”

Lately, Dixon has been working hard to master the songs of the Two Dollar Pistols, the local country band for whom he’s just become the bassist. When lead Pistol John Howie furnished him with a cheat-sheet listing all the songs’ keys, he had to ‘fess up that it meant nothing to him. “John was sort of chuckling under his breath,” Dixon says. “He must have been thinking, ‘What the fuck did I just get myself into?’”

Dixon describes himself as “musically retarded,” then quickly moves to strike the offensive word from the record. He owns only about a dozen CDs, most given to him by friends in local bands. He says he doesn’t know much about popular music. Asked if his distinctive picked guitar style is influenced by bluegrass, he shrugs. “I’ve heard terms like hammer-ons and clawhammer which I think are bluegrass terms but I’m not certain.”

The fact is, the self-taught Dixon is a virtuoso, a fearless explorer, a musical madman baying at some far-off moon. His guitar sound–a maze of twangs and bent notes–is immediately recognizable and unquestionably singular.

It pleases him to hear this, because he still remembers old bandmates making fun of his guitar-playing on early four-track projects. “They were laughing, but it made total sense to me,” he recalls. “I guess I was developing a style. The first song I ever did was on one string. Then I had three strings and all my songs were in waltz time because I just plucked across the board. And then I finally graduated to six strings.”

Shark Quest didn’t set out to be a local supergroup; it just sort of worked out that way. Five years ago, a local drummer and Zen Frisbee fan convinced Dixon he should start a side project. Soon after, the drummer (whom Dixon mysteriously refuses to name) brought in cellist Chris Eubank, who had played with Spatula and Bicentennial Quarters. “As soon I heard his cello with my guitar,” Dixon says, “it just locked. I said, ‘Holy shit, that’s the sound.’”

Next, Dixon added multi-instrumentalist Sara Bell (Dish, Regina Hexaphone), whom he had long admired. Unhappy with the turn the band was taking, the drummer issued an ultimatum to Dixon. “I told him my allegiance was with Sara,” recalls Dixon.

In search of a new drummer, Dixon turned to Willer, who had valuable experience drumming in the instrumental surf combo Family Dollar Pharaohs. The final piece to the puzzle was “Paco,” a.k.a. Scott Goolsby, a veteran of seminal local band Metal Flake Mother (and, later, Trailer Bride) and a bandmate of Willer’s in Family Dollar Pharaohs. He played one show as a last-minute fill-in for Bell and was such a natural fit he was asked to stick around.

“We sounded a lot different before he joined,” recalls Willer. “He has this really cool reverb-laden guitar sound–a Gretsch guitar with a Fender amp.”

Goolsby’s sound has earned him a tag over the years–he’s often listed as playing “special guitar.” What makes it special? “He came from a swamp in Mississippi,” says Dixon. “That’s where his mindset comes from and that’s what his guitar sound comes from.”

As his new band picked up steam, Dixon had to face his mates from the old one. So what did they think of Shark Quest? “They said it sounded like regurgitated Zen Frisbee songs without vocals,” he laughs. “Maybe there was a little bit of real animosity, but for the most part I think it was pretty tongue-in-cheek. I just sort of brushed off the criticisms, the dagger-eyes, because there was something that the new sweetie could do that the old lady couldn’t.”

To record Man on Stilts, its second full-length release for Merge Records, Shark Quest drove north to Richmond’s swank Sound of Music studio. The band brought along local producer Brian Paulson, a legend in his own right who produced two of the ’90’s most seminal records–Slint’s Spiderland and Uncle Tupelo’s Anodyne. The result is one of the most sonically impressive albums this region has produced in a long while.

“This was unlike any project I’ve worked on,” says Paulson. “There were no reference points for recording this band.”

“Sesame Hijack” is the Shark-Quest-alternate-universe equivalent of a hit single, shuttling between Eubank’s weepy cello and Bell’s retsina-drenched mandolin, between Willer’s slow rock exaggerations and hyper Russian dance rhythms.

“Hugging is Affecting China” was recorded on no fewer than 42 tracks, most of them Dixon guitar parts. Asked if he wants to arrange his songs more elaborately in the future, he says, “I want to arrange them entirely!”

Eubank has learned Dixon’s hieroglyphic language and has thus taken over the task of translating his ideas into something the rest of the band can understand. “Chris does a lot of the arranging,” Paulson says. “He’s the one with the classical music training, and he was very important in the recording process.”

Dixon says the new album is a major step forward from the band’s debut, Battle of the Loons. “I think the songs on the first record were way too self-indulgent. The new songs are just plain better. The band has definitely grown and the songwriting process has jelled.”

With a new record about to hit the streets, it’s fair to talk about expectations. What do you hope for when you’re in a mysterious band that’s impossible to pigeonhole, let alone market to the masses? Do you aim to knock Eminem off the top of the charts? To have a hit on G-105? To get your video voted onto MTV’s “Total Request Live?”

“I personally have no expectations,” Dixon concedes humbly. “I feel very lucky and privileged. I don’t take it for granted that we can exist as a band even in a local bubble like Chapel Hill. I don’t have any expectations. Of course, there are wishes.” EndBlock